Coastal Com­merce

Tur­tle Hos­pi­tal cares for Florida’s hard cases


Shell of a Good Place

Afunky- l ook­ing build­ing— bright turquoise no less— sits on the bay­side of the Over­seas High­way in Florida’s Marathon Key. For­merly known as Fanny’s bar, it looks like some­thing right out of the 1950s. These days, how­ever, pa­trons ar­rive by a chauf­feur- driven van that dou­bles as an am­bu­lance, and af­ter be­ing checked in, they are moved to ac­com­mo­da­tions with a pool. The pool is es­sen­tial be­cause the pa­tients are sea tur­tles, and the build­ing today is home to the Tur­tle Hos­pi­tal ( Hid­den Har­bor Marine En­vi­ron­men­tal Project, Inc.).

Un­like its kitschy outer walls, the Tur­tle Hos­pi­tal’s in­te­rior is a no- non­sense treat­ment cen­ter. It con­tains all kinds of up- to­date med­i­cal equip­ment needed to treat dif- fer­ent species and sizes of ail­ing sea tur­tles.

About fifty to seventy- five tur­tles are ad­mit­ted to the hos­pi­tal each year. Once in the ER, pa­tients are scrubbed to re­move any bar­na­cles or al­gae. Then, they are weighed, mea­sured, and pho­tographed. The new pa­tient is then X- rayed to see if marine de­bris or in­ter­nal fi­bropa­pil­loma tu­mors are present.

One of the hos­pi­tal’s goals is to ed­u­cate

hu­mans, so a vis­i­tor’s in­tro­duc­tion to the hos­pi­tal is a slide show about the lo­cal sea tur­tles: log­ger­heads, green, hawks­bill, leatherbac­k, and Kemp’s ri­d­ley. All of these are ei­ther threat­ened or en­dan­gered, and most of their mal­adies are the re­sults of hu­man care­less­ness.

Pol­lu­tion, which is usu­ally caused by hu­mans, is the big­gest cul­prit. Oil spills and tar are toxic to tur­tle lungs and can cause death. Get­ting en­tan­gled in un­der­wa­ter fish­ing nets or ropes may re­sult in flip­per in­juries. Worse yet, it can keep them from sur­fac­ing. A tur­tle that can­not sur­face to breathe will drown. “Fish­er­men who visit are al­ways sur­prised to learn about the dam­age their un­der­ground nets can cause,” says the Tur­tle Hos­pi­tal’s di­rec­tor, Bette Zirkel­bach.

A green sea tur­tle is sus­cep­ti­ble to in­ter­nal fi­bropa­pil­loma tu­mors. For ex­am­ple, when he gets an at­tack of the munchies, sea grass is the thing to sat­isfy his crav­ing, so he pigs out. If the sea grass is pol­luted, it will even­tu­ally make him sick and can cause fi­bropa­pil­loma tu­mors. This dis­ease can bring about blind­ness. Then, the tur­tle will be un­able to find food or fend off preda­tors. If the tu­mors are not re­moved, he will die.

Dur­ing the hos­pi­tal tour, visi­tors learn that leatherbac­ks are the largest- liv­ing rep­tile. This an­i­mal can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. It takes a lot of jel­ly­fish to keep a guy like that go­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, it is easy for him to mis­take a plas­tic bag for a jel­ly­fish. In­gest­ing the bag can cause in­testi­nal im­paction, which can re­sult in the leatherbac­k’s demise.

Sur­pris­ingly enough, struc­tures along the shore­line also pose prob­lems. Sea tur-


tle hatch­lings fol­low light to get to the wa­ter, so il­lu­mi­na­tion from build­ings can dis­ori­ent them. This is why many sea­side com­mu­ni­ties reg­u­late light­ing along their beaches, es­pe­cially dur­ing sea tur­tle mat­ing and hatch­ing sea­sons.

Af­ter the visi­tors’ slide show, hos­pi­tal guides show guests the tur­tle op­er­at­ing room and tur­tle hema­tol­ogy lab. In rep­tile ra­di­ol­ogy, they might see a tur­tle with a cracked shell— the cause most prob­a­bly be­ing a boat pro­pel­ler. Those whizzing blades can also se­verely in­jure the crea­ture’s head and flip­pers.

Fi­nally, guests get to visit pa­tients in their pri­vate hos­pi­tal rooms, which, in this case, are over­sized tubs. Many pa­tients here have cracked shells or miss­ing flip-

pers. Per­ma­nent res­i­dents— those who are in­ca­pable of sur­viv­ing in the wild— make their home in the old Hid­den Har­bor Ho­tel swim­ming pool. They seem to be per­fectly con­tent in their wa­tery nurs­ing home. In fact, it is amaz­ing how well they adapt to their mal­adies.

The Tur­tle Hos­pi­tal was the brain­child of Rick Moretti. He came down to the Keys in 1980 to help Cubans dur­ing the Mariel boatlift. ( That’s when Castro al­lowed scores of Cuban refugees to im­mi­grate to the U. S.) Moretti bought the Hid­den Har­bor Ho­tel to help the Mariel ar­rivals. One day, he de­cided to put a tar­pon and some other fish in the ho­tel pool so guests could get ac­quainted with them. Al­ways in­ter­ested in en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, Moretti thought that it would be an op­por­tu­nity to teach kids to be kind to an­i­mals.

In 1986, Moretti changed his fo­cus from res­cu­ing peo­ple to sav­ing sea tur­tles. Earn­ings from the Hid­den Har­bor Ho­tel fi­nanced the Tur­tle Hos­pi­tal. In 2005, how-

ever, Hur­ri­cane Wilma caused so much dam­age that the ho­tel had to be closed. The hos­pi­tal is now funded by pri­vate do­na­tions, grants, foun­da­tions, and money de­rived from vis­i­tor rev­enue. In fact, when you visit, you might want to pick up a lit­tle some­thing— a mug or a T- shirt— at the hos­pi­tal gift shop be­cause your pur­chases help to keep the hos­pi­tal go­ing.

The Tur­tle Hos­pi­tal is a great place to bring kids. It isn’t of­ten that they can get up close and per­sonal with Go­liath rep­tiles, learn about them, and want to help. “We of­ten get letters from them and their par­ents,” says Zirkel­bach. “Par­ents say that now when the kids go to the beach, they pick up the trash.”

Ev­ery vis­i­tor will come away with a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of these won­der­ful crea­tures. Hours for hu­mans to visit the pa­tients are 9: 00 a. m. to 6: 00 p. m. daily, and reser­va­tions are re­quired. An award- win­ning travel junkie, Roberta Sotonoff writes to sup­port her habit. Her pas­sion has taken her to well over 110 coun­tries. Bobbi’s work has been pub­lished in dozens of do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines, Web sites, and guides. Visit her on­line at roberta sotonoff. com.


Af­ter ar­riv­ing in the spe­cial tur­tle am­bu­lance ( above), pa­tients are taken into the emer­gency room for check- in and to be­gin re­ceiv­ing treat­ment.

Re­turn­ing a tur­tle to its nat­u­ral habi­tat is al­ways a joy, but some tur­tles be­come per­ma­nent res­i­dents of The Tur­tle Hos­pi­tal if their in­juries, like ones that are caused by boat pro­pel­lers ( be­low), pre­vent their re­lease.

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